The origins of this word are somewhat unclear. It first appears in the 17th century meaning “waves on the shore” and is a derivation of suffe, which has no known source. It was often used to refer to the coast of India, so it may come from that area originally. Another possible origin is from sough, meaning “a rushing sound”. Its use as a verb “to ride a wave” is recent, dating from the early 20th century.
The 1980s saw the use of surf regarding channel changing on television. The exact origin is not known, but it is clear why the word was generalised in this way – the passive nature of television allowed watchers to be carried along with the images much as a wave carries a surfer.
With the advent of the World Wide Web function of the internet in the early 1990s, vast amounts of data became available through hypertext web pages, and accessing information for pleasure became increasingly common. Use of surf to mean browsing web pages has become extremely popular, and is practically the standard definition of the word.
This application of surfing was seemingly first used to talk about internet use by Brendan Kehoe, author of “Zen and the Internet” on a Usenet group in 1991. Interestingly, this was before the World Wide Web and referred to browsing telnet sites:
“Here's a question: how do other people deal with users that they *think*
are doing no-nos around the net? One of our users had the habit of occasionally going net-surfing and doing the hit-and-run type of attempts…”1
Fellow user Ron Newman replies:
“I like that term, 'net-surfing'. I'll have to pass it on to a friend of mine who first discovered the network while attending the University of California at Santa Barbara!”2
However, research does turn up an article by Paul Saffo in Personal Computing July 1989 in which he writes:
“If information is a wave about to engulf us, the solution is to become "information surfers" -- individuals who thrive in a world of hyperabundant information”
This is the earliest published use of this sense of surfing, but Saffo claims the word was in popular usage around Silicon Valley as early as two years prior to this. The actual phrase ‘surfing the internet’ was first used online by Mark McCahill, creator of the Gopher protocol in 1992:
“… There is a lot to be said for…surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack...”3
The first publication to use this phrase was ‘Surfing the INTERNET: an Introduction’ by
Jean Armour Polly, published in Wilson Library Bulletin, June 1992.
1. “Brendan Keheo”, newsgroup: comp.admin.policy. 6th July, 1991
2.“Ron Newman”, newsgroup: comp.admin.policy. 7th July, 1991
3.“Mark P. McCahill”, newsgroup: alt.gopherView, 24 Feb 1992.